The real labor starts here

The real labor starts here

Bursa, Turkey’s automotive hub, is going through a labor uprising that’s worth a generation. Generally a center-right leaning town for decades, the city of my childhood is becoming a symbol of workers’ resistance. Not surprisingly, the auto industry is at the heart of it.

When I was growing up in Bursa during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two car makers of Turkey were everything the city owned. The most basic and least dangerous children’s game in the neighborhood was guessing the number of Tofaş cars versus Renault cars that would pass. Depending on your luck, you could win a bar of chocolate or force others to carry your deathly heavy schoolbag. 

I had school friends with names like Marco and Enrico but they could speak perfect Turkish. They were the sons of Italian engineers who had moved to Bursa to help manufacture the TOFAŞ 131, the trendiest car of that generation (silver was popular).  Bursa was better than Turin or Detroit. By the time you reached your teens, you could choose to play basketball with the best teams in town. And yes, they were called TOFAŞ or OYAK Renault. MAKO was good at volleyball.

A lot has changed in the auto culture and industry in Bursa since then, but some things remain the same. Last week, after the workers of a family-owned small component maker, Coşkunöz, decided to go on a wage strike, their action spread like wildfire. Now, just a week after the first attempt, Turkey’s biggest export item production has almost come to a complete stop. And this means Bursa will slowly shut down.

So what is at stake in Bursa? Workers at the Bosch brake factory have signed a deal with a better package.
The news got out and one after another, factory workers in the automotive and parts industry demanded their fair share in the glowing balance sheets of the car industry. Türk Metal, the union in charge of negotiations, has failed to meet the needs of workers in the other factories. Now, the workers are furious at the union more than the employers. 

Türk Metal is blaming the workers for putting it in a hard position. “Production is in danger,” the union’s statement said, as if its main raison d’etre came from the profit side of the employer. Take one look at the Facebook page of the workers called “Union of Metal Workers” (@metalmib on Twitter) and you will see how organizers came to hate the union. 

Think of an industry that throws lavish parties, travels to the French Riviera or Italian Alps. An industry that takes tens of journalists to trade fairs, pays thousands of dollars to celebrity models and actors for commercials and yet, refrains from sharing that spotlight with its workers. This may sound like an overly populist criticism, but it is exactly that.

In a country that is racing to the most critical general election of the decade, where issues like the minimum wage and retirement benefits are the biggest topics of discussion and where the biggest winner of the export wars is the automotive business, the workers’ share should have been discussed long ago.

At the end of all this struggle, this solidarity and this resistance, there will be a new labor movement; a new class of workers rising above the ordinary union deals and political discourse. Car producers will be a part of it as well. This will be the new emerging class of Turkey’s industrial future.